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Year of the Dog

Mike Smith's Year of the Dog is an independent film in every single one of its frames. Cast with some of the most interesting stars making movies these days, it flouts the conventions of Hollywood narrative, going so far as to appear not to have a narrative at times. But there is a strong story after all, and a lot of great fun in the telling. Like last year's Little Miss Sunshine, Year of the Dog cushions it satire of American life (Southern California version) by zeroing in on the quirks du jour.

Peggy (Molly Shannon) has crossed forty, but is still a good little girl. She does what she is supposed to do, and does her best to fit in. She does not dwell on the fact - established in the first few scenes, a catalogue of her one-way relationships that's played for laughs - that the world does not exactly suit her. She has settled into a quiet, roughly contented life with her beagle, Pencil. How can anybody not be charmed by an old maid who names her dog "Pencil"?

Peggy's brother, Pier (Thomas McCarthy) is married to a mild phobic, Bret (Laura Dern). Peggy always brings presents for her niece and nephew when she visits - she's the giver in her life - and she endures Bret's amiable condescension almost unconsciously. Meanwhile, Peggy's boss, Robin (Josh Pais), is a thin-skinned, humorless number-cruncher who believes that the world is fine just the way it is except it doesn't show him the respect that he thinks he deserves. His skin actually seems to be some shade of grey. Peggy's co-worker, Layla (Regina King), is just the opposite, bouncy and full of pizzazz. She's working hard on getting her boyfriend, Don (Dale Golboldo), to propose, even though he's something of a two-timer. If I wanted to show how Year of the Dog overlooks familiar romantic patterns, I could concentrate on Layla's romance. A normal moviemaker would have ended the film with her wedding - and Peggy all dressed up as a bridesmaid. Something very different happens, however, and Layla's marital adventures are unceremoniously dumped: the film doesn't care about them anymore. That's because Peggy doesn't.

That's at the end. At the beginning, life with Pencil is enough. Poor Pencil! Mike Smith may be idiosyncratic, but he's not a Martian. For the situation that he establishes in his opening shots to move an inch, it's clear that Pencil has got to go. Sure enough, there's Pencil lying beside a hedge, slowly expiring of what turns out to be "toxic poisoning." Pencil's demise introduces two men into Peggy's life, both apparently eligible. The first is Al (John C Reilly), Peggy's neighbor, owner of the aforementioned hedge. Peggy is pretty sure that Pencil got into something poisonous that Al left lying around, and she turns out to be right, but not until she has let Al take her out to dinner. Al is a complicated character worthy of Mr Reilly's talents, a decent guy who's just not right for Peggy, as she discovers when she accepts his offer of a nightcap and learns that he is an active hunter. (He doesn't keep guns in the home, owing to a youthful mishap, but he has quite the collection of knives, mounted and lighted in a built-in cabinet. Peggy has never given much thought to hunting, but after a few minutes with Al, it's clear that she doesn't approve.

The other new man is Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). Newt is a volunteer at the vet's (or is it the ASPCA) who takes an interest not so much in Peggy - he tells her, at an awkward moment, that he's "celibate," but neither he nor the film elaborates - as in Peggy's doglessness. Newt arranges for Peggy to adopt Valentine, a somewhat feral Alsatian. Peggy's relationship with Valentine is neither a repeat of her easy time with Pencil nor its complete opposite. It's just different. That's how life is, and it takes all of Molly Shannon's formidable comedic talent to keep the second act of Year of the Dog interesting.

Before she has to deal with Newt's celibacy, Peggy has taken up a lot of his interests, or convictions, or whatever, most notably veganism. At first she approaches it tentatively, but soon she is a firm believer in animal rights. And as this new religion takes hold of her - and it becomes clear that neither of the two new men was ever going to amount to anything in her life - Peggy begins, quietly, to misbehave. When Pier and Bret go on vacation and leave her in charge of their children, she decides to take the kiddies to a special farm where animals who have escaped from the food chain are cared for. Then she takes them to a chicken processing plant, but happily she's denied access - another interesting foible in the screenplay. When she comes back to reclaim Valentine, who has been staying with Newt, she discovers that he has had her dog put down, because he attacked and killed another dog.

This news precipitates Peggy's descent into something like madness. She adopts fifteen (or was it fifty?) dogs, and her interior decoration goes to hell. When the dogs are disappeared - seized by the pound whence they came -  she immediately thinks of Al. (She's probably wrong, but the movie doesn't bother to clear this up.) She gets into his house, finds the sack of slug bait that has clearly been opened by a canine jaw, and lays in wait for Pencil's murderer, armed with one of his own knives. As the ensuing scene plays out, we may feel that we have left comedy far behind.

After her meltdown, Peggy "gets help" - offscreen, mercifully. When she returns, the stage is set for her old life to resume. She takes one look at it, however, and writes an email to everybody in which she announces a different plan, and the movie is over before you can blink. 

As a rule, realism is death in film. Reality is the boring thing that we go to the movies to escape. What allows Mr Smith to infuse his film with the look and feel of reality, together with its pointless absurdities, is the power of his cast. Unless you don't go to the movies very often, this won't surprise you, knowing as you do who's in it. These are actors who know how to be nuanced without being mannered. Mr Sarsgaard demonstrates that he is the biggest chameleon in the movies today - he doesn't even look particularly handsome, and if he has ever played anyone like Newt before, I haven't seen it.

Perhaps Mike Smith's longest-running silent joke has to do with the fact that, although much of the story takes place during the Christmas and New Year's holiday season, there are very few visual references to it. Christmas has gone virtual - or meta - in Paradise. (April 2007) 

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